Putiyei: Warrior and Feminist (Molly) / by Claudia Bode

Photo Jul 23.jpg

Putiyei, the Olive Branch for Children’s project manager, is a man of few words and key to the construction of the Peace Home.  He is involved in every step: from overseeing the work crew, coordinating material deliveries and reviewing construction methods.  He's tall, athletic, and prefers ‘doing’ over ‘talking.’  He’s the willow tree, deeply rooted, but able to bend in the wind.  Over the course of a day you might find him scrubbing dishes, playing dodgeball, swinging a sledge-hammer, driving volunteers to villages, listening to people's problems and building schools.

He is known for many things, but the only one Putiyei will tell you about without too much probing is his role as a father.  Like his own dad, he has dozens of children - but how he and his father ended up with this many children are two very different tales.

Eight years ago Putiyei didn't speak English, had never driven a car, and was living a traditional life in a Maasai Village.  Putiyei was asked by his village to guide the petite, red-headed, Canadian-born Olive Branch founder, Deb, as she travelled between villages doing community outreach work. 

Deb will tell you that, when she first saw him, she was so distracted by his presence that she fell off her bike.  He and Deb soon fell in love, and the rest as they say is history, except it's not.

At 22, when Putiyei married Deb, he married her and the Olive Branch, which includes the children Deb had already adopted.  Today, they have a precocious six-year old of their own and around 40 children they love as mentors, coaches and parents.  As he says with a sly grin, 'I've been busy.'

Putiyei has since learned the construction trade from previous volunteers and experts he has worked with here in Tanzania, including our own Paul Mannion and Ivan Rhodes.

This wasn’t the life Putiyei was raised to live.  He grew up from a very young age in the savanna training to be a Maasai warrior, to herd and protect the family's valuables, namely cattle, from predators with a stick, a club and a knife.  Putiyei was born to his father's fourth wife, which would ultimately help turn him into the man he is today. 

Putiyei is most proud of and most excited about two things.  His job as the (construction) project manager, saying ‘I love it, I love being out in the field’ and 'the girls.'  'The girls' that he is referring to are the Maasai girls and women who live with the Olive Branch. Traditionally Maasai girls are sent to be wives in another family, and they don't always get a choice in the matter. One of Putiyei's sisters used to be beaten by her husband because she did not conceive.  Another sister is studying to be a lawyer and plans to fight for women's rights.  Some are in secondary school, when they would otherwise be having babies, cooking, carrying firewood and water over long distances.  Some of the girls ran away to the Olive Branch to have these opportunities. 

Of everything Putiyei has learned, it's his respect for women and his desire to help educate them, that most intrigues me.  Most people take on the values of their family and their culture. If they change it's usually because of exposure, often in school, to new ideas at an early age.  Putiyei never went to school and had little exposure to outside ideas until he was 22, an age at which most of us are already formed in our thinking.

As a Maasai warrior Putiyei killed snakes, leopards, hyena, and even a lion to protect his cattle.  Now he uses that same ferocity to protect the women and girls in his life.  Sometimes, even at a risk to himself.

I asked Putiyei what made him change his views on women from that of his father and his brothers.  Deb’s feminism andinfluence is obvious, but what else caused him to fight for his sisters, what caused him to veer away from the life he was raised in?

Putiyei told me that when he was growing up he saw his older brothers mistreat his mother.  He knew this was not okay.  I suspect that it was this early observation, and his inner strength that has led him to follow his instincts.  Some people observe mistreatment and learn to repeat it, not even recognizing it as mistreatment, or becoming immune to it and believing it is their right to see women as objects because it benefits them. But a few people see this and decide not to participate. An even smaller minority decide to make a difference.  Putiyei is part of this elite group.  He's making a difference. 

It hasn't been easy for Putiyei. At first, his relatives were angry with him -- some still are -- for abandoning the traditions and for marrying a westerner.  The Maasai are one of three tribes in Tanzania who still maintain traditional lifestyles and close family bonds.  They are determined to raise their children to follow in the footsteps of their parents, to herd cattle, to have babies, to increase the wealth of their tribes, to be warriors.  If they begin losing their children to Western education they fear they'll lose what makes them unique. 

Putiyei reflects fondly on his childhood and his roots.  The freedom, the games they played, seeing who had the best high-jump, the best long-jump.  Practicing their fighting skills.  Sometimes he dreams of being out with the cows and his brothers again, even if just for a day.  He hopes that maybe someday he’ll get to spend one more day doing that.  Now there just isn’t time.  He said he loves how the Maasai raise their children to run free and to be gain responsibility, to learn in nature.  Although he himself practices a less strict, more receptive parenting style than his own parents.  “I want a more open, honest relationships with my kids.”  

Times are changing.  The Maasai ride motorcycles, they carry cellphones.  They used to be nomadic but more and more of them are staying in permanent villages because the land is less open than it was. 

Today Putiyei's father has begun letting some of his younger daughters attend school, but the idea of them marrying outside of the community is still unacceptable to him.  Some of Putiyei’s younger brothers are following in his footsteps.  They are witnessing the benefits of medicine, money and education. The Olive Branch has played a big role in this change by helping the women set up a business to sell their jewelry. The organization has also brought medicine to the village and just built the new Montessori school.

"In 15 years every family will have three or four kids in school,” Putiyei told me when I asked what the future held. “In 20 years those kids will have jobs outside, in towns, they won't want to go back to the villages, they won't want to live those traditional lives."  Maybe, but maybe they’ll find a way to maintain their culture just the same.

Putiyei is the type of guy who leads by example.  He’s the type of guy other guys look up to.  The type of guy who empowers females.  He’s the willow tree.  He knows where he comes from, he moves around the globe without letting it change his core values, he adapts to modern practices as easily as he changes back into his Maasai dress and joins in the dancing.